CHARLOTTE – It seems so simple. Carolina's offense is all about putting the ball in the hands of quarterback Cam Newton and having him make plays. And the defense, then, can central its focus on the many talents of Newton and limit his success and, well, win the game.
The rub is that the Panthers are creative in their approach, using a variety of formations and concepts to make the running game a multiple-option threat. Newton also has skills as a passer, as Seattle found out last Sunday when Newton completed 12 of 15 passes in the fourth quarter for 169 yards, engineering a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives as the Seahawks made an improbable comeback from a 9-point deficit to win the game.
"When you line up and play Carolina, you know it's definitely about Cam. We have to be up to that challenge. Cam is a handful. He can do a lot of things. We're looking forward to this," defensive end Cedric Thornton said. "When you play that team you know it's going to be a physical game. Cam leads the way for them."
Unlike other weeks when there are multiple threats an offense brings to the table, the Panthers are pretty ordinary. They have Newton. They have tight end Greg Olsen, a veteran who has long been doing his thing – running great routes, creating matchup problems with his speed and catching everything in sight. And they have some pound-it running backs in Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert to support Newton in the running game.
The wide receivers? Ted Ginn, Jr. will be a deep-ball threat with his straight-line speed. Corey Brown has 8 receptions and Jerrico Cotchery has 7 catches in the five Panthers' wins. Rookie Devin Funchess is a massive target who came on to help beat Seattle last week.
"They don't get real fancy, but they are physical and they don't make a lot of mistakes," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "We know what they like to do and they do it well."
You look at the numbers and there is nothing remarkable about the Panthers offense. They average 4 yards per rushing attempt and lead the NFL in rushes this season. They've converted 24 of 63 third downs. Newton has completed 55.4 percent of his passes.
A key to Carolina's perfect five games is a plus-6 turnover ratio. This team has been excellent with its ball security.
There are no tricks. No gimmicks or gadgets. The Eagles are going to see Newton left, Newton right and Newtown between the tackles. They're going to run some option plays, at times with an old-fashioned wishbone formation in the backfield. Newton is a mountain of a man at quarterback at 245 pounds and as athletic as any at his position in the league.
Simple, right? Slow Newton and slow Carolina's offense. The Eagles did it last year when they sacked a gimpy Newton 9 times and beat up on the Panthers, 45-21, at Lincoln Financial Field.
Carolina's team mantra is "Keep Pounding," and the Panthers offense follows that approach on a weekly basis.
"It comes to execution," defensive end Fletcher Cox said. "They want to play physical. They're going to come right at us and we have to be ready for that."
There are plenty of storylines here as the Eagles try to win their third consecutive game and the defense and its approach against Newton and his multiplicity is right at the top. It appears that the Eagles match up well against a team that likes to run the football, and that is so committed to doing so. The Eagles allow 94 rushing yards per game and just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt.
And while it is most definitely a game won and lost in the trenches, the Eagles have to secure the flanks as well. Outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham know that Newton will bootleg and that he will run sweeps to the edges and that they can't overcommit on play-action fakes and motion in the backfield.
The Eagles know the task on defense. And they know they've got a huge challenge on the other side of the ball against an aggressive, very sound defense that takes the football away and keeps the point totals low led by game-dominating linebackers.
It just seems to me to be very cut and dried for the Eagles on Sunday night. The offense can't turn the football over and must show patience and attention to detail against a very good defense. The defense has Cam, Cam and more Cam to contend with. If Carolina wants to drive 80 yards four times to win this game, good luck to the Panthers.
This shapes up as a low-scoring game, a battle of discipline and execution. Surprises? That's what you're always waiting for. But the Panthers are a no-frills unbeaten team feeling like it slayed a giant last week in Seattle. The Eagles are developing, trying to get all the pieces on the same page, looking for a third straight win and a plus-.500 record for the first time this season heading into the bye week.
Stop Cam, beat the Panthers offense. Secure the football and beat the Panthers defense. It sounds so simple and we know, don't we, that in this season of trying to figure out this football team, that there are going to be some curveballs along the way on Sunday night.